Acoustics in the Canyon: Nature’s Concert Hall

By: Mary Lou Janson

Visiting Colorado’s iconic Red Rocks Park and Amphitheatre had been on my to-do list for far too long. Defined by its large, red, sandstone rock outcrops, the park appealed to my inner hiker while its open-air theater’s distinction as the “only naturally occurring, acoustically perfect amphitheater in the world” piqued my curiosity as a lover of live music.

To fully experience the venue, my trip needed to coincide with a concert. The summer concert season typically runs from April through October and, with just under 10,000 total seats, I knew my window of opportunity was limited and that sold-out shows are common.

I could only get away for a few days. But I wanted to allow enough time for the concert and to explore a portion of the 738-acre park. It marks the meeting point between the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains, making it home to plants, animals and birds from both regions.

Considering travel dates in late August, I eagerly anticipated Colorado’s more comfortable climate than the sweltering summer temperatures typically found in my hometown of Tampa. That cooler weather would be critical to an enjoyable daytime hike but could be of concern when deciding how much to bundle up to attend an outdoor concert in the hillsides after dark.

Although it was months away, and a second performance had been added, only a handful of tickets remained for an appearance by the Colorado-based pop rock band OneRepublic, a personal favorite of mine that was upping the musical ante by performing on stage with the Denver Symphonic Orchestra.

I was hooked. And soon I was booked on a flight from Tampa to Denver. I made reservations for a two-night stay in Golden, Colorado, and purchased a concert ticket for a middle seat, about a third of the way up from the stage. Red Rocks is located in Morrison, Colorado, and is owned by the City of Denver. Golden offers an appealing selection of moderately priced hotels and restaurants; the neighboring, sprawling Colorado Mills outlet mall in Lakewood and proximity to the National Historic Landmark Red Rocks Park made it an ideal base for me.

That was about all the planning I intended to do. After arriving on a weekday afternoon, I gauged what the weather would allow to set an agenda for that day. Early the next morning, I hoped to head for the hills to visit the venue during the morning and then embark on a hike from a nearby trailhead. That evening was reserved for the concert and the following day I anticipated exploring a little more before returning to Florida.

The primary reason for going was simple: I wanted to hear for myself the renowned sound that has made this landmark such a popular tour stop, from rock stars to opera singers, and see for myself what it is like to look directly upon what has been described as “one of the world’s natural wonders.”

It’s no fluke that Red Rocks has such a revered reputation. “Pollstar Magazine,” a leading live music trade publication, recognized Red Rocks Amphitheatre as the country’s Best Outdoor Concert Venue at its 2019 30th Annual Pollstar Awards. Winners are voted on by a panel of more than 2,000 agents, managers, venue operators and other professionals.

What modestly began as a makeshift stage, originally known as the Garden of the Ages, officially opened as a formal amphitheater in June 15, 1941. Despite its remote location, Red Rocks quickly became legendary as a mandatory tour stop for musicians who appreciated its picture-perfect setting and pitch-perfect sound.

The Beatles appeared here in 1964 and played before the only crowd that did not sell-out on their first U.S. tour. A run-in between fans and police during a 1971 Jethro Tull concert resulted in a five-year ban on rock acts. Highlights from the post-ban years include the filming of “U2 Live at Red Rocks: Under a Blood Red Sky,” and contributions to audio and video recordings by the Dave Matthews Band, The Moody Blues, the Zac Brown Band and more.

According to the Colorado Music Hall of Fame’s web site, “For Colorado-based acts, performing at Red Rocks has become a rite of passage. John Denver, Earth Wind & Fire, The Lumineers, OneRepublic, 3OH!3 and Judy Collins have all done shows there.”

The Civilian Conservation Corps and Work Projects Administration provided initial labor and materials for the project, after Denver purchased the parcel from a private landowner in 1927. However, it was Mother Nature’s handiwork that created the tilted rock formations that remain at an angle today, notably Creation Rock and Ship Rock. Both are nearly twice the height of Niagara Falls, according to Denver’s City Data website. At 300 feet tall, they stand almost even with London’s Big Ben.

Architect Burnham Hoyt of Denver had already earned recognition for his contributions to New York’s Radio City Music Hall when he was hired to create the amphitheater in the 1930s. Adamant about blending the walkways and dressing rooms without disturbing the natural surroundings, he incorporated existing topographic features and rock formations into the design.

“An orchestra pit built of stone fronted the stage; behind it, in full view of the audience, the lights of Denver would mark the horizon,” according to the online history posted by Red Rocks Park and Amphitheatre. And what a view it was from 6,450-foot above sea level when I arrived in the morning and returned that same evening.

The morning was well spent at Red Rocks Visitor Center and Hall of Fame. Admission and parking are free and the interactive, educational displays are really well done. The highlight for me was the Hall of Fame exhibit showcasing performers who have appeared on stage throughout the decades.

Next stop was the Trading Post Gift Shop and Colorado Music Hall of Fame located downhill within walking distance. All sorts of snacks, souvenirs, sun protection, apparel and rock memorabilia are sold there. Plus, it serves as an ideal starting spot for a hike — particularly if beverages or restrooms are needed.

It was a cool, clear, sunny day; and for most of the time, I had the Trading Post Trail to myself. Only the occasional runner, a few couples or small groups of hikers, were encountered during the hours I lingered here. Trails are well marked, and the terrain is a bit slippery in sections. But the sights were filled with fantastic rock formations in all directions.

Eager to get back to Red Rocks before sunset, I returned to the hotel, hung up my hiking boots, dressed in layers to keep warm and headed back to where the day began but with a different purpose. From the first note of music, I knew. The view, the venue and the thrill of sharing the moment with more than 9,000 kindred spirits helped me to understand the meaning of a phrase that surfaced during my pre-trip research. Those few words aptly described Red Rocks as a “magical, spiritual and emotional stage.”

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